To change strings or not to change…

I will fully admit I still have very wishy-washy feelings about this great debate. As I type this post, I’ve changed strings on both my bass and my acoustic today. It was the first time I’ve ever changed the strings on that acoustic, which I have had for several months. It’s probably only the 2nd time I’ve changed my bass strings.  I’m currently looking at my electric guitar, wondering if I ought to change the strings on that one, too, while I’m at it and thinking I probably should, since I’ve been using them for several months and…yeah, I’ve also never changed the strings on that guitar. Ever.

I think I’ve probably got a few guitarists cringing at this point. Yes, I have had the same strings on my instruments for more months than I can accurately count. As I changed them tonight, the best I could come up with regarding how long they’ve been on my instruments was “uhm….a long time?”

I do really hate changing strings though. I hate breaking them in. New strings, so often, are so “bright” I find them appalling.  I definitely seem to be after a deeper overall tone.  So, I really only find myself changing them when I see signs that something is going seriously awry.

Two of the strings on my Hellcat were slipping out of tune really easily, so I knew it was time to swap them.

The texture of my bass strings has been bugging me lately (I don’t know if this is a thing that happens to bass strings as they age, or if it’s just my dry cool weather skin that makes me more sensitive to tactile sensation. It’s likely the latter; you should see what I go through shopping for sweaters. When I find one that doesn’t feel itchy, I buy four.), so I changed those out today, too.

I’m still in the ‘try everything’ phase, so almost every time I switch strings, I switch them for something I haven’t tried before. And I’ve found for the first time, I put a set of strings on my bass that don’t bug me until they break in.  I actually like the sound of the Dean Markley Signature Series NickelSteel Strings (45-105) straight out of the packaging. That does make me worry that I maybe won’t like them as much when they break in, but we’ll see what happens. At the moment, it’s the first time I’ve put strings on any of my instruments that I didn’t think ‘omg. breaking in strings sucks. My ears are not happy.’

The Hellcat is free of it’s extra-lights (fuck extra-lights. I am SO not a fan.) and is now sporting a set of Dunlop Phosphor Bronze Medium Lights (11-52).  I never realized changing strings could make a guitar so much louder.

Still, between the various guitars I’ve changed the strings on at this point, I’ve learned that I absolutely favor medium lights. I’ve also learned that ‘medium-light’ can have a slightly different meaning depending on the company and model, which makes shopping a bit of a nuisance, but really, it’s not like it’s anything out of the ordinary. You can try on two pairs of pants with the same size label and find them completely different, so that guitar strings can’t agree on what’s medium light versus what’s medium really should come as no surprise, and it becomes obvious why guitarists and bassists tend to refer to their string preference by the numbers. Still, now that I know my ‘happy place’ for guitar is in the ballpark of 11s-13s, with a preference for 11s or 12s, it narrows down the field of things I want to try.

I do still have some extra light and light gauge  guitar strings to get through, though, so it will be a while before I’ll get to try anything other than the D’Addario’s I’ve stocked up on from my local shop.  I’m personally not a fan of D’Addario’s, but when I first started this journey I found I kept breaking the high E string. Since the hours of the shop are limited, anytime I was in there for something else, I added another set of strings to the purchase, which means I have a few sets of 9.5s and 10s to get through before I can start experimenting again. Since I hate changing strings, that could  be a while. But…then again, since I hate extra lights, I might end up changing them a lot faster than usual.

I guess the point of this post is not ‘do I change strings, or do I not change strings’ so much as ‘just do what you want.’  I seem to only really change them once I notice they’re starting to slip out of tune faster than they used to. You read things about the oil from your hands messing them up, but the reality is I have fairly dry skin, to the point I barely break a sweat unless it’s sweltering out or I’m working out REALLY hard, so in my case, it just takes an incredibly long time for my skin to effect the strings much. I imagine that has something to do with why people have such varying opinions on how often strings should or should not be changed. The reality is, we’re all different, and not just our ears.

Since I take such a long time to change strings, though, I’ve decided to make myself a little chart to keep track of what I have on my instruments at any given time.

Instrument Date Strings
Hellcat 11/15/15 Dunlop Acoustic Phosphor Bronze 11-52
Bass 11/15/15 Dean Markley Signature NickelSteel (2604) 45-105
Godin ? ?

If I don’t, you’ll find me struggling to remember what strings I have on the instrument, so when I find a set I really like, I won’t remember what they are to re-purchase them. I honestly haven’t got the faintest idea what the Godin is currently strung with other than to say they are probably 10s. They still sound fine and are mostly keeping tune, but I think I’ll change them anyway, since that’ll put me on a schedule where all of the instruments that need to be restrung semi-regularly will have been strung at the same time.

The ukuleles are not on the list, because, really, they’re nylon strings. They just don’t need to be changed that often, and when they do, you can actually visibly see the signs of wear fairly easily, so it eliminates a lot of the guesswork. There’s a joke that if you ask most ukulele players when they last changed their strings, they won’t know.  I don’t know how much truth is in that, but that the joke exists at all is telling.

Until Next Time, deciding whether to change the strings on my Godin at 11:30 at night, or wait until tomorrow. Ah, decisions…

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5 thoughts on “To change strings or not to change…

  1. I’ve only changed strings on my 4-string twice. I don’t know if its heresy or not, because I’ve heard of other bassists who like the “dead” sound that older strings give them, but at one point, I had strings on there that hadn’t been changed from 1996 to 2011, when I actually went and dug out the bass from its hibernating place. It still had the old GHS Bass Boomers that I’d gotten from Sam Ash back in the day.

    Since then, I changed two times, but I stayed with the Boomers. I only ever changed string gauge, going from medium to heavy because I liked the sustain. I… still have the set that I strung it with in 2011. I think I only changed it because one of the strings seemed dead, but after a friend looked at it, I believe its actually the electronics.

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  2. Now that I think of it, I’m also still using the strings that the two 6-string basses came with when I got them in 2011. I don’t even know what strings those are. I know they’re too short on the fretless, because they thin out to what I think is the core, right where the 1st fret meets the nut. They work for me though.

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    1. Bass strings definitely live a long while. Uke strings do, too. Guitar strings don’t have quite as much longevity. I changed my bass strings once shortly after I bought the bass, in large part due to not caring for the ones it came with. This time I changed them mostly because the Ernie Ball’s I have on it didn’t feel good to the touch. They felt kind of scratchy. That could very well just be winter skin playing tricks on me, but I decided to change them and see. They still sounded fine and were staying in tune.

      I haven’t tried the boomers yet. I plan to eventually; I hear good things, but I still have a set or two of the Ernie Ball slinkys. I’m hoping I’ll dig the Dean Markleys once they wear in though, honestly. I like them so far, and they’re only about $16. I’ve found myself pleasantly surprised by DM acoustic strings, so I hope the same will be the case here, since they’re comparatively cheap.

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  3. I change my strings after i play about 10 to 15 shows on them. Because they do start to sound dead… and frankly, the strings don’t stay in tune when they’re dead. and I happen to like the crisp sound of new strings on my acoustics….
    The Hellcat, is designed for 10-46 gauge strings… it’s what comes on them when you buy the guitar brand new… i find with 11-52 strings, the guitar is harder to tune and keep in tune…

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    1. Yeah, since I don’t play shows, I mostly just change them when they’re slipping out of tune faster, which can take several months. I don’t care for the over-brightness of new strings, so that works for me. There’s so much about string changing that becomes ‘what sound do you like?’ So far, I like my strings best when they’re a little ‘lived in’ and mellowed out. The first week or two on new strings generally sucks, both because breaking strings in is a pain and because I don’t like the sound of them. I keep trying new brands in part looking for ones that are less bright out of the packaging, which is probably a big part of why I dislike the daddarios so much. There’s nothing explicitly wrong with them, but that bright tone just isn’t my preference.

      We’ve talked about that on the hellcat before, but I really do genuinely dislike the feel of 10s, so I’m trying the 11s. Before I bought mine, I watched a couple of YouTube demos, and I know more than one of them were using 11s or 12s, so it should be possible.

      If it ends up having tuning issues, I’ll have to switch back, obviously, but I can’t come to a verdict on that when the strings have only been on a few hours. The Dunlop strings seem to be settling in well, though. I’m just going to have to cross my fingers that you hellcat is the exception, since I really don’t want to go back to 10s if I can help it.

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